Scottish prison service facing significant pressures, warns chief inspector

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) is facing “significant pressures” over its budgets, staffing levels and handling of rising prison populations, MSPs have been told.

Scotland’s chief inspector for prisons, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, spoke at Holyrood’s Justice Committee on Tuesday and outlined the challenges ahead for the SPS.

And Ms Sinclair-Gieben (pictured) highlighted that prisons are having to handle operating at overcapacity.

“I think the unprecedented population rise at the moment is a huge pressure,” the chief inspector said.

“We’ve basically got approximately 700 extra people in prison at any given time – that’s the equivalent of a large size prison. That’s no joke, to actually place that pressure on.

“I know the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has no additional budget to manage those extra 700 people which is a problem.

“I don’t think we necessarily have the space. They are having to put two people into a room primarily designed for one. I think the human rights people are going to be exorcised about that.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben also said she understands that unions are considering taking action short of a strike, adding to current pressure.

She said: “I think the SPS is facing a population pressure, a budget pressure, a staffing pressure with the sickness absence and the unions. I think these are significant pressures.”

Asked by Scottish Green MSP John Finnie whether the ageing population at Scottish prisons is creating challenges, Ms Sinclair-Gieben replied that it “certainly is”.

The chief inspector said: “One of the things that has become clear for me is that it’s not just the rise in prison population, but it’s the complexity of the population.

“So you’ve got I think the difference between 400 and 1,400 legacy sex offenders in at the moment.

“That’s a significant difference, because they’re legacy sex offenders, they are of necessity older and therefore more likely to require social care.

“Prisons are predominantly built for young-ish, fit-ish men and we’re asking very much older people, a much larger older population, to be kind of shoehorned into that.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben explained that the increase in the number of prisoners had caused there to be a “slowdown” in the system for processing applications for offending behaviour programs.

She said: “We have an increasing level of complaints about progression – people feeling that they can’t progress through the system and out.

“I think that’s a combination of pressure from increasing numbers. If you’ve got 700 extra people all competing for offending behaviour programs, inevitably there’s going to be some slowdown in the system.

“So I think we as a nation are going to suffer a challenge on overcrowding, and I think we’re going to suffer challenge on progression.”

The chief inspector also indicated that an ageing staff population has raised concerns, with many expected to leave within the next year and a half.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “What I’ve noticed is that there’s a bulge, a baby-bulge if you like, which means that in about 18 months, a significant number of staff are going to leave because they’re due to retire.

“When they retire, that’s a bulge that has to be predicted in succession planning and I’ve talked to SPS about that and I know they’re fully aware and dealing with that.

“But the bit that does worry me is that level of corporate knowledge and experience. You know, these are well experienced staff that we’re going to be losing, a bulk of them at the same time and that does worry me.”

Allow phone calls from cells to boost mental health support, MSPs told

Young offenders should be allowed to make phone calls from their cells to increase the support available to them when they are distressed, according to the chief inspector of prisons in Scotland.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben made the comments at Holyrood’s Justice Committee on Tuesday as MSPs heard evidence on the availability of mental health services at HMP YOI Polmont.

Addressing MSPs, Ms Sinclair-Gieben suggested that providing in-cell technology allowing offenders to make calls could help to combat some of the mental health problems caused by social-isolation.

She explained that the technology would consist of cordless phones being installed in which offenders would have to dial in their pin number before being able to make a call to numbers that had been agreed upon for them to use.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “If you think of young people, those of us who have teenagers, they’re welded to their phones.

“You’re taking that away from them, but also you’re taking away their primary vehicle for communication.

“And so if you are distressed at night, currently you can ring a bell and somebody will come and give you a phone to phone Samaritans. That requires a level of sort of self-help seeking behaviour.

“Whereas, in fact, if you can just phone a helpline, phone your family, phone all the rest of it, from your room without having to stigmatise yourself, I think that would be a huge benefit and I would certainly say it’s a quick win.”

Last week, the chief inspector published a review on mental health services for young people in custody, which called for the creation of a stronger suicide and self-harm strategy.

The review was ordered after the deaths of two young people at Polmont – 16-year-old William Lindsay and 21-year-old Katie Allan.

Asked if a measure to introduce the in-cell phone technology could pose any risks, Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “Not that I can see. I can’t see any difference between using the phone because it follows exactly the same security guidelines as the normal phone on the wing.

“So supposing they phone their family and they get distressed – so then you might say, ‘well what could they do?’.

“Well at least they can phone the helpline, they can do all that. They can still ring the buzzer and ask for staff help.

“That’s no different to if they were distressed in their room without any access to help.”

Ms Sinclair-Gieben added: “It doesn’t require any legislation, I think it needs support.

“The other advantage of course is that staff can listen in to the ones that are happening in the middle of the night, which is when most people get very distressed.”

When asked what impact such measures had had in England and Wales, where it was announced in July last year that in-cell technology would be piloted at several prisons, Ms Sinclair-Gieben suggested that the installation of the technology ultimately pays for itself.

She said: “The cost implications vary on the age of the prison. Where there is cabling already into the cell, the cost implications are neutral.

“So the cost of putting it in is offset by the profits made back to the company by the number of phone calls.

“The number of phone calls go up hugely inevitably – rather than having to queue for a phone, worrying about how your wife’s labour’s going, you can just go in your room and phone and you can do it in private.

“As a result, the company that installs them, and it varies on the company, actually makes sufficient money that it pays itself off after two years, so it’s worth doing.

“What’s interesting is that I put it into a juvenile prison with 400 juveniles and thought, ‘Oh, how much is this going to cost us?’.

“In reality, at the end of the year, no phones were damaged, our levels of violence went down 40%, and our levels of self-harm went down dramatically.”

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